"It is really an honor. I accept this on behalf of my fellow troops who are still in Iraq. Simple appreciation like this keeps us going," said Julie Zachariah, 26, a United States Navy Corpsman, who served three times in Iraq, while accepting a key to Stafford, her home city in Texas.
The city also proclaimed March 14 Julie Zachariah Day in her honor. 'Through her distinguished and outstanding service, she has brought great distinction and pride to the city of Stafford and her fellow Staffordians,' the proclamation signed by Mayor Leonard Scarcella said.
'It is a very special occasion for the city. It is something we have seen on television about our dedicated young men and women. She exemplified that in a sterling manner,' Scarcella said while presenting the proclamation.
'What she is doing is what America stands for. She exemplifies everything we hold near and dear about our country. It is hard to meet someone like Julie,' he added.
A 1998 graduate of Stafford High School, Zachariah joined the navy in 2001 while in college.
She said there was no special reason for the decision. "One morning I felt like that. My younger sister was also graduating. I thought that my parents could spend for her higher studies," she said.
"We were not happy at her decision. We never wanted our daughter to join the military. But like many American children she also wanted to do something on her own. How much can we force her to give up that?" her father Babu Zachariah, a system support analyst at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said. Her mother Mary is a registered nurse there. They came to the US in 1979.
Babu Zachariah said he had doubts if she could complete the boot camp, the rigorous training for the armed services. "But she came out of it successfully. May be we underestimate the ability of our children," he said.
The boot camp was in Great Lakes, Illinois. Then she attended Hospital Corps School and learned basic medical skills and life-saving interventions. After graduating, she moved to Bethesda, Maryland for the first duty station in the National Naval Medical Center in the Internal Medicine Clinic.
In March 2003, she was deployed to Iraq with the hospital ship, the USNS Comfort. Her duty was to provide medical help to allied forces and enemy prisoners of war.
In August 2004, she was attached to 1st Marine Logistics Group and deployed next month to Camp Taqaddum in Iraq. She was part of a team that maintained a detailed record of all people injured in the areas of operation.
After returning in March 2005, she was attached to 1st Medical Battalion with 1st Marine Logistics.
She was again deployed to Iraq, this time to Camp Fallujah, in February 2006 and remained there until September 2006. She worked as an operating room assistant. She was honorably discharged in November 2006 after completing a five-year contract. Currently she is part of the active reserves and will go back to service if called.
Julie said she has no regrets about her decision to join the military and that she enjoyed the five years of service in the navy.
"There is a world out there. The experiences and friendship you get there will not be available anywhere else," she said.
She said she could never forget the day when a US Marine, a colleague, died in the military hospital in Fallujah on his 21st birthday.
Camp Taqaddum is about 45 minutes drive from Baghdad. It was regularly hit by enemy rockets and missiles. But she was never injured.
"In the military there is always a chance to get hurt. But in the field, nobody thinks of his or her safety," she said.
She said the number of Indians joining the military is increasing. "It is an ideal profession for any young person." She said she never faced any discrimination.
She said the life in military has changed her in many ways. "It makes one more disciplined, and focused in life. The qualities one gains from there will remain throughout life."
Currently she is working in a hospital and plans to continue her studies in nursing at Houston Community College. The navy will pay for her higher studies.